Crimson Shroud is a small scale 3DS game developed by Yasumi Matsuno (Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics) during his brief stint at Level-5. Sadly his stint was so brief that all they managed to churn out was this high concept ‘table top’ RPG. It’s also pretty good. The game takes place on the map of a palace, navigating locations you select with a pointer, moving your character ‘pieces’ as you progress. Some locations simply offer narrative advancements, while most of them engage you in a fairly standard turn-based battle.
Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII all set a thematic precedent for what you can expect in Crimson Shroud. Like all of these games Shroud is saturated with complex ideas and familiar themes. While the scope is clearly much smaller I still think they managed to create an abridged version of the amazing RPGs these creators are known for. I really enjoyed it and I think it’s safe to say if you’re familiar with the previous works mentioned then Crimson Shroud will make you feel right at home.
Did the gambits from Final Fantasy XII confuse you? How about the multitudes of unclear stats/abilities/systems from Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together? The weapon melding from Vagrant Story?? If so, avoid Crimson Shroud. No-one seemed to think it was appropriate to minimize the complexity to match the miniature size of the game. It’s saturated with ideas that feel disproportionately complicated compared to the 6-8 hours your’re gonna spend with it. But this is exactly my thing, and why I keep coming back to it all. The game within the game.
Since there are no actual character levels, Crimson Shroud forces you to place an unhealthy level of importance on the weapon and item drops you get from the few battles you’ll face. Take into account that said drops are reliant upon how well you perform in said battles and you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely must be paying attention to every single thing you do. Accidentally not choose the key item that’s required to advance in chapter-2 from the performance based loot screen after a specific battle? Well, fight that battle again. And that’s if you EVEN KNEW WHAT YOU WERE LOOKING FOR IN THE FIRST PLACE, which you won’t because the game never tells you. All you really get is an extremely vague hint about what you’re looking for and are required at this point in the game to understand the obscure rules to the battling and loot drop systems in the game. I personally replayed a couple battles simple because I didn’t understand that I was looking for an item to unlock a door, and when the item did drop I didn’t even know what it was. Looking around for other opinions online I ran into more than a few others sharing a similar experience. Not a game-breaker by any means, more of a minor complaint. Trial and error, RNG and a devious GM can all be enjoyable parts of a table top experience. I chalk a few of these decisions up to the game concept and I find that to be incredibly compelling, if not skillfully implemented.
Many Matsuno’isms are healthily intact in Crimson Shroud. Here’s what to expect:
– Hundreds of different pieces of equipment, items and spell scrolls (character-specific and general) that drop at different rates from different battles. Similar pieces of equipment can be melded together infinitely to create a stronger versions of that specific item (Falchion + Falchion = Falchion +1, etc.) You can also meld equipment with spell scrolls, which upon equipping to a character will allow them to use the spell.
– Rare drops that unlock certain chests, doors, areas that are both required and extra. Methodology for acquiring rare drops usually involves killing specific enemies that may or may not appear during a battle depending on what order you kill your enemies in.
– A robust character stat system that contains all the variety and ambiguity you could ever ask for. I still don’t know what exactly affects what when it comes to: ATK, DEF, STR, VIT, DEX, AVO, INT, RES. How to assign your gear and what stats to focus on for each character is a mini-game in and of itself. You’ll have to work at it, analyze it and through trial and error find what works best (and even then you may not even know exactly what you did to get the results you ended up with).
– Characters have specific skills that you obtain after certain numbers of battles. This is the closest thing to traditional leveling up in the game. You will get the chance to choose a new skill after most major battles and after reaching certain numbers of battles. After two play-throughs, I still don’t think I’ve seen the end of the skills.
– The order at which you progress the game from area to area can alter your experience. For instance, if you go to one area before another, you may find that things are slightly different that in you were to do them in the opposite order. There aren’t many opportunities for this in the game, and even when there are it’s subtle. In chapter-1 if you go to a certain area first there’s a harder battle than if you were to go somewhere else first and there second.
– A New Game+ that’s damn near a whole new game. No one should really only play this game once. The second game contains new and stronger items in the chests, new fights and boss fights, new areas, stronger enemies and a real ending to the story.
All of this amounts to a level of complexity and content that you wouldn’t (and kinda shouldn’t) expect from an $8 downloadable mini-game that’s one fourth of a collection.
I would actually argue that the story and characters here are some of the most interesting to come out of a Yasumi Matsuno game. Not having any true Ivalice material made Crimson a bit more fresh for me. I mean, there’s no huge distinction between this and anything else that took place in Ivalice (artistically or thematically) but it’s impressive that they went about crafting an entire world and parts of a greater mythology just for the sake of presenting a more complete story.
The trio of Giauque, Lippi and Frea are compelling antagonists in a story that’s clearly much bigger than the events in Crimson Shroud. While they do generally fulfill standard heroic archetypes, our main characters are still fleshed out enough to not feel stale. The dynamic between them as they progress further into this unknown castle just feels genuine somehow.
Much of this is due to the sheer volume and quality of the text and writing. Alex O. Smith’s localization achieves the typical high standard, effortlessly weaving fantasy elements into realistic intrigue. The narration takes the form of an overseeing entity, a GM type, who goes to appreciated lengths making sure every detail is dramatically fleshed out. This goes a long way to help the player visualize the events, as the game engine itself only presents motionless game board pieces for the characters. This aesthetic (which at first seems like a bummer) is brilliantly presented. The models didn’t feel lifeless to me. The character interactions and subtle battle effects did wonders, filling them with life. In the end it all feels just how I imagine they envisioned it to feel (like a board game), and that’s most definitely a victory for them considering the assets they were working with.
Without the artistic brilliance, depth of storytelling and quality of writing all of this could’ve easily been a boring hack-job of an idea. Thankfully it comes off more like reading a well-written fantasy novel where you always feel like there’s a wealth of mythology waiting around every corner. I’ll stay away from spoiling anything story-wise because I think the first ending is more interesting, but I feel confident saying that playing through a second time is a requirement considering it provides a slightly more enhanced version of what is actually transpiring in The Palace of the Rahab.
Based on everything I’ve described here it would be a safe guess to assume this game will can only be enjoyed by a pretty specific crowd with particular tastes. But I’d actually say Crimson Shroud can reach more than the RPG family. Since visual novels have exploded in popularity and board games retain their niche, I think a hybrid like this still has a place in a lot of gamers libraries. The package itself is polished (the music and art are design are both un-fucking-believable), has AAA developer pedigree and the story is well worth hearing. If YOU’RE ALREADY an RPG fan who hasn’t checked this one out yet, literally no reason not to. Your time and money are well-rewarded by this secretly cool little experience made by a guy who might not ever freely make a game again.
-LIST UPDATE: CRIMSON SHROUD-
2. Chrono Cross
10. Mass Effect
11. Dead Rising
14. Brutal Legend
15. Paper Mario
16. Radiata Stories
17. Crimson Shroud
Maybe I am the biggest Matsuno fanboy out there but the miniature size of this game just can’t elevate it into the realm of competition with other, full-sized games…much less big RPGs like Radiata Stories. It IS better than the worst Zelda game though.
19. Kingdom Hearts
23. Final Fantasy XV